Not long ago, the fake-news rag The Onion cleverly updated an Industrial Age tale for the Digital Era: "Modern-Day John Henry Dies Trying To Out-Spreadsheet Excel 11.0." Fitting the tale of a nerdy number-cruncher into the framework of a mythically strong folk hero, the Onion made at least one reader laugh uncontrollably. When he had recovered his breath, that reader — okay, I — recognized that the story was so funny precisely because the parallel was so apt. The original, legendary John Henry had also died in a battle of man vs. machine.
I first heard the story of John Henry in a book of folk songs my parents kept by the piano and sang from often. "I've Been Working on the Railroad" was actually the biggest family favorite. I never made the connection that the two songs came out of the same historical experience, and in any case I imagined such songs to be mere fanciful stories, no more "real" than the hole in the bottom of the sea or poor Charlie who could get never get off the subway for want of a nickel. (If his wife could pass him a sandwich through the train window, couldn't she just as easily pass him the darn coin?) These songs were about tall tales and humor, not logic and reality.
Later I learned how the American folk song collections I'd grown up with in the '60s and '70s owed their existence to the socialistic, unionizing movement that came out of the Great Depression. "Working on the Railroad" referred to actually working on the railroad; it was the working man, not the rich man, who was hurt by subway fare increases; and John Henry symbolized the worker for whom hard labor meant a life cut short.
But John Henry himself, of course, was a myth, a made-up person, a symbol, like Paul Bunyan, or Superman. Funny thing, though — turns out there really was a steel-drivin' man named John Henry, a convict at the Virginia State Penitentiary who was conscripted to help dig the railroad tunnels that would connect the South with the West. He and his fellow workers did drive steel by hand alongside newfangled steam drills; he, with many others, died on the job, and was buried, just as the song says, in the sand by a "white house."